Many if not most Christians would be happy to say that we want to be “biblical,” insofar as we want to have a “biblical” way of looking at life and living in this world. Not, perhaps, in the sense of The Year of Living Biblically — a 2007 book by A. J. Jacobs, which had as its sub-title One Man's Humble Quest to follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. If you’ve not come across it, the basic plot line was to try to live in accordance with the “rules” found in the Bible, in particular, the Old Testament, with negligible regard to the passage of time or modification/compromise based on the original context. As a Good Reads review puts it: “To be fruitful and multiply. To love his neighbour. But also to obey the hundreds of less-publicised rules: to avoid wearing clothes made of mixed fibres; to play a ten-string harp; to stone adulterers.” And so on.
The basic premise of the book is that taking the Bible literally, and timelessly, wherever and whenever possible, is de facto taking the Bible the most seriously. Faithfulness to a literal interpretation feels like being faithful to a “plain reading.” The very idea that we need to “interpret” the Bible sounds to many like just another way of “not believing” the Bible — aka “interpreting the truth out of it.” Hence the appeal of a “keep it simple” approach along the lines of “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.”
Christians reading that last paragraph may see there some elements of their own instinctive ways of thinking about the Bible.
But in reality, that doesn’t “settle it.” In practice, none of us takes it all literally. Or rather, in our heart of hearts we may “really want to,” wherever we think we can, but what we end up doing is implicitly drawing up a selective list of the rules and commands that we feel “obviously do” still apply and those that “obviously don’t.” Our guide becomes not “what the Bible says” in some pure, timeless and objective sense but which bits we personally think should apply now in our place and in our time. The basic problem here is that the Bible itself doesn’t give us the answer to that.
(Why it doesn’t is a good question, but it’s a question for another time.)
There’s a similar problem when it comes to some of the ways in which the Bible uses ancient literary genres (i.e. styles of writing) to communicate its theological truths and teachings. Genres that we would call “picture language” or “teaching through metaphors and stories” rather than via propositions (truth-statements) as we usually do today. Is it most faithful to the Bible to read those as describing concrete, literal things, or is it most faithful to read them within the writing style that the original author intended, which would have included: making people think, making it memorable in an oral culture, and engaging the imagination? Passages about Heaven and Hell are perhaps the best illustration of this.
So — how should we go about it? There are inevitably some different ways of thinking; however they don’t divide along “conservative” (Bible-believing, to be faithful to scripture) versus “liberal” (Bible-revisioning, to suit ourselves) lines.
One classic conservative approach that has a lot going for it is to say that anything in the Old Testament that is repeated (especially by Jesus) in the New Testament is intended to be timeless while the rest falls away. That works to a point. However, it doesn’t help when it comes to some of the things the New Testament says, that society’s sense of values today (including most Christians') would not affirm, such as imperatives for slaves to obey their masters and women to keep quiet in Church. It also doesn't work well in relation to a subject where today’s reader thinks there “must be” a continuing relevance to a particular Old Testament command or prohibition but, inconveniently, there’s an absence of explicit reference to it in the New. He or she then needs to “stretch” — to find “hints” and “allusions” and “this is clearly a reference to” — in order to “read it in.”
Another classic approach (and by classic I mean, that used to be taught in “Bible college” in the old days) is to divide up the Old Testament law (commandments) into categories: civil (aka laws to govern the nation of Israel), ceremonial (laws governing its religious practices) and moral/ethical, with the first two categories treated as time-bound in Old Testament times, and hence having expired, leaving the last category as timeless. Again, this has some merit, but there are several problems. One is, that is not at all a Jewish way of understanding how Torah (the law) functioned — it’s a completely alien rationale. Two, the Bible itself never divides things up in that way. And three, it’s unclear which of these supposedly-separate “categories” many laws would fall into — many would be in more than one. It also requires us to modernise or update some of those “moral/ethical” laws based on what we think is the ‘spirit’ or the underlying moral principle, which draws us back into the realm of interpretation and subjectivity.
This leaves us with one last option, which is, to apply a grid or filter to each Old Testament law or command based on things that Jesus said. In particular, when he was asked which is the most important commandant and he replied with not one but two (since these are in reality twin aspects of one inseparable idea, certainly from God’s perspective): Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and, love your neighbour as yourself. So, our guide, or interpretive principle, would be: “If and to the extent that the continuing practice of an Old Testament — and, we might add, New Testament — law, command or practice contributes to loving God and loving people, then continue to do it. If and to the extent that it does not, discontinue it.” This is further enhanced by something else Jesus said, in a similar vein, when he was being challenged about Sabbath-observance. Namely, that the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. By natural extension, this statement about the Sabbath would apply to the entire law. The law was given for people’s well-being, not just to make God happy and get his way. Finally, and again in the same vein, John 10:10 is a seminal scripture: “The thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy. [In contrast] I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.”
These three scriptures together form a helpful interpretive grid that we can use to filter a “biblical” command or law for its continuing application: to what extent will practicing and applying it, from their context, then, contribute to loving God, loving people, and their well-being and thriving, in our context, now?
Clearly we shouldn’t use “loving people” or their “well-being and thriving” as a catch-all justification for laissez-faire — “do whatever makes you happy.” That’s not what I’m saying.
But let’s think a bit more deeply about how we go about bringing the divinely-inspired ancient text into our present-day world. Copying and pasting directly from “then” to “now” is not the answer, especially when that inevitably means doing it selectively. What we need to think more about, is how we’re doing the selecting. It’s all too easy to use scripture to confirm what we already think on a subject (so it’s no wonder that when we then read scripture we find what we’re expecting). "Interpretation" is not an option — the only option is whether we decide we will do it well.
Let’s please reconsider dropping “biblical” as an adjective. It's too-often used to enhance a claim to be right on something (i.e. “I think … and what’s more, God clearly agrees with me …”).
“The Bible says” is not the same thing as “the Bible clearly teaches.” What “the Bible says” is merely a starting point for the far more important question of “What does the Bible mean by what it says?” The answer to that begins with “What did it mean for its original audience then?” following on from which we can ask the most important question, “What does that mean for us now?” and answer it in ways that give the idea of being “biblical” some theological validity. The interpretive grid offered by those statements from Jesus offers a good place to start.